Paul Virilio's treatise The Aesthetics of Disappearance -- more virtuosic meditation than traditional scholarship -- considers the motivations and repercussions of a contemporary society fascinated by speed. Speed, or velocity, is understood literally as space (distance) mapped against time (duration), reaching its absolute limit in light, which collapses both space and time. Indeed, Virilio is attuned precisely to the culturally correlated obsession with moving (driving, flying, riding) at high speeds and viewing (watching) moving (light) images. At this limit, light (absolute speed) dissolves the implicit dualism suspended between these phenomena, that of embodied motion and that of disembodied stimulus, anticipating a neuro-psychological event effectuated by the simultaneous or synchronic discharge of neurons to the brain resulting in an epileptic, or, in Virilio's terms, picnoleptic, seizure. Such lapses are quite common in maturing children whose developing psychic mechanisms are often momentarily incapable of assimilating the prevailing contingency of outside experience, and in adults during their waking moments -- Virilio's example, which opens the book, is of dropping one's morning coffee, a lapse in consciousness for which one is fundamentally unaccountable. Crucial to these two moments, each operating synecdochly, is their structural place at the point of passage between radical binaries: unconscious sleep and conscious awareness; unconscious infancy and conscious adulthood. Speed, then, by inducing such sensory overload, supplants the project of reason (mature consciousness) by eliding observable difference, situating the observer in a perch between things -- between binaries -- the observer himself marked, en passant, as indifferent. Indeed, the world sped up (or the world from the vantage of speed) is experienced as multiplicitous variety irreducible to diachronic singularity or topographical proximity, history, discourse, context, obfuscated for the experience of pure, undifferentiated surface: light.
Entwined with this psychological narrative is a socio-political narrative, one that Virilio articulates as a direct relationship between speed and power: a speed that affects invisibility, and an invisibility that affects power. In a moving discussion of the American media mogul Howard Hughes -- Citizen Kane himself -- Virilio notes that for the last quarter of his life Hughes, having pursued traditional avenues of wealth and having indeed accumulated quite a fortune, became a recluse of a particular sort of reclusion predicated on conjuring an inertia via speed. Faced with his impending death and haunted by the seeming transience of his material fortune, Hughes attempted a certain spatio-temporal simultaneity, parking the same unused cars and airplanes at airports across country, watching from his bed the same films again and again, and, in 1938, breaking the world air record for circumnavigating the world and then parking his triumphant airplane in the precise place it had stood before he had departed. In enacting such loops, Hughes effects a certain omnipresent banality -- the sentiment of inertia -- the effect of remaining same across time and space. In the obsession with speed that occupies the latter portion of Hughes' life Virilio argues that the real object of Hughes' desire is not speed but rather an absolute power, a power as much over ones own physical mortality as over other people. Of course, the example of Hughes speaks more generally of the insidious duplicity of speed: even while recognizing the political efficacy of embodied speed, the powerful paradox of at once omnipresence and invisibility (think Foucault’s panopticon), Hughes is himself seduced by the reflexive narcotic of speed, its effectual atrophy of embodied consciousness via the sensory dismissal of embodied temporality. Indeed, the story of speed is one of the synchronic, polyrhythmic noise of light (absolute speed) overwhelming the temporal redundancy of the diachronic, mortal, embodied human.
It is no surprise, then, that Virilio traces speed back to the original biblical seduction, a “leading astray” or passage from one world to another, the two worlds rendered distinct (this even precedes the physical expulsion from Eden and operates rather on the level of consciousness) by a disruptive change in visual phenomena: the biblical couple’s eyes are opened, they see themselves, and they proceed to clothe themselves, to render themselves invisible. “Fall” as euphemism for this original sin only corroborates the notion of speed as coconstituent with the modern condition. Virilio, whose fascination with war is impressive, speaks elsewhere of the vertiginous world seen from the falling bomb, the object possessed by gravity, and the analogy continues in to gender relations (and an implicit remediation of Lacan’s castration story) with woman, original attractor, who affects the force of gravity (the woman who is the phallus).
Devoid of causal logic, the only event of absolute speed is accident; thus, obliquely, fear is complicit in speed's seduction, the utter contingency of the accident -- couched in the retrospective sentiment of surprise -- the object of fascination. Epilepsy, literally surprise in the Greek, can only affect its surprise after its instant – hence the prefix “epi,” or after. Pure speed, light, constantly in passage, never attains an “after” from which to memorialize such a pleasurable surprise. And in this sense, invoking Einstein’s perspicuous situation of two trains passing, Virilio notes the obvious relativity of the retrospective instantaneity of surprise, that the instant is predicated on the coincident, and that inertia is an illusion produced by the rule of absolute, relative movement. Thus, the relative temporal intuitions of a “reasoning consciousness” from various places in space, paralleling Luhmann’s observer, allow, in their reducibility, a sort of “synoptic” register, a second-order observation, which yields the conventional scene of causal relations; irreducible, however, is the punctum that form as the limit of absolute speed, ever-seductive, which Virilio, in this work on aesthetics, describes as a point of light (drawing on the Poe's "The Gold Bug"). Implicit throughout the book is the pernicious effect of this irreducible punctum, its pull toward a narcosis of disembodied stimulus, the homogenization of speed rendered by broadcast TV and the like. Seen in its psycho-physical and political ramifications, this formalization of speed serves as powerful contemporary allegory. Ultimately, Virilio seems to advocate a sort of liberal humanist agenda, one recognizing that the true pleasures of speed are indeed necessarily social, and that disappearing is only fun if one, literally, reappears (to oneself).
It is interesting, for me, how well Virilio's analysis reads with so much of the course's examination of media, if only with a greater poetry -- when we wonder who influenced Kittler's style, we may look to Virilio, who's tone, similar as it is, resonates with a tad bit more austerity. Viz Bamboozled, Virilio's suggestion of a subversive counterpoint in a certain sort of embodied speed jives with Mantan's tap dance, which dazzles in its play between a torso in slow motion, mimicking conventional movement, and his supersonic feet. In this sense, then, Mantan garners a certain ineffability -- as perhaps the only indomitable character -- through the virtuosic embodied coincidence of his feet and his torso, a dynamic stability. And we see, also, the changes to his dance wrought by Mantan's new televisual remediation -- manifest foremost in a choreography with other dancers -- which registers with Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe's mandate that the self-consciousness of the "photographic model," a term applicable to all members of our photographic condition, cannot be successfully remediated through the aesthetics of photography itself.
I should add, also, that The Aesthetics of Disappearance, evaluated solely on its aesthetic merits, is a dazzling, viciously fast ride, and one of the most beautiful books I've read in a while.